New-School Hero

Detroit soul singer Dwele fuses hip-hop with classic roots.

Dwele, the Detroit singer-songwriter noted for his innovative fusion of old-school soul roots with elements of hip-hop, was all of two years old when Maze featuring Frankie Beverly released “Joy and Pain” in 1980. The anthem-like song has, however, been a staple of family gatherings for as long as Andwele Gardner can remember.

Two weeks ago, during a Dwele gig at Sugar Hill in Atlanta, longtime East Bay resident Beverly joined the younger vocalist on stage for an impromptu duet version of the song. “Being at his concert and having him come up during my show was — I don’t know — too much for me,” Dwele said by phone from New York City, where he had gone to promote his recently released fourth CD, Sketches of a Man, on Wendy Williams’ new syndicated television show.

Several days before his performance in Atlanta, Dwele and his six-member band opened a Maze concert in Dallas. “I went out in the audience as a fan for a good hour-and-a-half or two hours,” Dwele recalled. “One of my band members told Frankie Beverly we were performing at Sugar Hill in a couple days. He and his people came and stood backstage and watched the whole show. I maneuvered it so the band would go into ‘Joy and Pain’ to see if we could get him up on stage. We did it. It was classic.”

Beverly may be one of Dwele’s old-school heroes, but both men share a common superhero: Marvin Gaye. “I listened to a lot of Marvin coming up, and I loved the expression in his voice and the way his voice would take you places,” Dwele said. “I like to think that I can do that, but I can only attempt to be as good as Marvin.”

Gaye and the entire Motown Records operation had abandoned Detroit nearly a decade before Dwele was born, leaving a hole in the city’s cultural soul that remains unfilled. Dwele’s earliest memories of music are the gospel records by such Detroit groups as the Clark Sisters and the Winans that his mother played around the house and his father playing organ every Sunday at True Love Baptist Church. His dad, a cardiovascular doctor, gave Dwele an organ of his own shortly before his murder, which Dwele witnessed at age ten. Later, he took up trumpet and studied briefly with onetime Ray Charles sideman Marcus Belgrave.

Like T-Pain, Dwele is a “rappa ternt sanga.” Singing, he said, “is something I always did, but I think I just rhymed a little more than I sang.” He did both on his debut CD, The Rize, released independently in 2000. “I had never really sang around anyone,” he explained, “so when people heard it and found out it was me, they were like, ‘Man, why don’t you sing: You’re good at it. You should do more of it.’ That kinda urged me to move more towards vocals.”

Dwele’s soaring high-tenor tones on Sketches of a Man, his first CD for Koch after two on Virgin, have a decidedly old-school vibe. But his at times stream-of-consciousness lyric flow and seemingly out-of-sync drum ‘n’ bass syncopations come from hip-hop.

“A lot if it,” he said of his lyrics, “is me actually putting the music on, letting the track run, just kinda feeling it — you know, just saying things and getting the rhythms and patterns together vocally. A lot of times it’s just kinda on the fly. Instead of writing it down, I just write it as I go.”

Snare drum backbeats often come slightly ahead of the usual 2 and 4 in Dwele’s music, and bass patterns function independently of the drums. He calls the style, inspired by his late friend, Detroit rapper and producer J Dilla, “neck snap.” Dwele overdubs both parts on disc. It’s often difficult, however, for his band members to replicate the complex patterns in person. “Drummers and bass players are used to locking in together,” he says, “and in some of the music I do, the bass player has to learn to fall back behind the drummer and the drummer has to learn not to hit the hi-hat with the snare.”

Although he has contributed vocal hooks to hip-hop hits by Slum Village (“Tainted”), Common (“The People”), and Kanye West (“Flashing Lights”), and done remixes for Lucy Pearl and Natasha Bedingfield, Dwele has yet to produce an artist other than himself. “I got this problem where I make songs and I fall in love with ’em and I don’t want to let ’em go,” he admitted. “I’m trying to shake it, though, so I can get into production with other people.”

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